Laguna Life And People 042914
Holly Morrell has a truly heart-warming tale to tell
By MAGGI HENRIKSON
Photos by MARY HURLBUT
Holly Morrell has a loving and compassionate heart. But it’s defective.
In all the good ways a heart can work; in caring for others, by giving back to the community, and enriching the world with her healthy spirit, Holly’s on top of the world. But in all the bad ways a heart can be broken, literally, that’s in her chest too.
Before she was born, people considered it a shame that her father’s mother had died so young. Even when her father’s sister died at the age of three, it was just one of those tragic things that happen. Thirty years ago the medical world considered cardiac arrest as a relationship to lifestyle, activity, or medication.
But when Holly’s father, Chuck Morrell, was 57 years old he required a heart transplant, and then two of Chuck’s twin brother’s children died. One survived a full cardiac arrest at the age of 14.
Finally, cardiologists at the National Institute of Health identified the genetic component doing its dirty work.
The Morrrell’s have suffered the loss of six of their 11 family members due to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Today, two live with devices implanted in their chests to prevent sudden cardiac arrest, and one received a heart transplant in 2010, as Holly’s father did in 1995.
Holly Morrell, champion of the heart
Holly was diagnosed with the condition herself in 2002. She endures and lives to fight on, after multiple surgeries to correct her implanted heart devices, and a full open-heart surgery two years ago.
Caring for others
“When my cousins died, it had a major impact on me,” Holly said. “I still had not been diagnosed, but I knew I wanted to start a screening program in memory of my loved ones lost, and save young people. More often than not, this is a preventable tragedy.”
Holly set out to learn more about early detection of heart problems. Genetic abnormalities of the heart are rare, but there are many other types of abnormalities as well that can be detected before an unthinkable tragedy strikes.
“Even seemingly normal, healthy young people – athletes – die from sudden cardiac arrest every three days,” is one of the sobering statistics that Holly is trying to defy. The youngest person she has identified with a heart defect so far was a 9 year-old, and the oldest is a 60 year-old. It can happen to anyone.
Fifteen years ago she begged and borrowed the necessary mobile equipment and set out to perform screenings at high school athletic physicals. The Heartfelt Cardiac Projects started with little more than Holly’s compassion and determined spirit. Heartfelt screenings are her raison d’etre.
“I didn’t choose this. This chose me,” Holly says, “Maybe it’s the reason I’ve survived. I feel incredibly blessed, even privileged to find my purpose in life.”
Putting aside the grief her family has endured, Holly accentuates the positive. “I’m serving my mission, and it is unbelievably rewarding to know that you’ve saved a life.”
To date, Heartfelt Cardiac Projects have performed more than 30,000 screenings. About 10% of all screenings find some anomaly, and 2% are potentially life-threatening. And every life matters.
Click on photo for a larger image
Holly (right) with some of the kids whose hearts were saved
thanks to Heartfelt screenings (left to right): Zack Berens, Ryan O’Hare,
Cheyne Jernigan, and Dillon Gustafson
Enriching the world
One of the hardest things for non-profits and the big-hearted people who drive that engine of passion, is that there’s a business side required to make all the wheels move forward.
Heartfelt Cardiac Projects require screeners, all of whom have been volunteers so far, and expensive mobile equipment able to travel to the school sites they serve all over Southern California. To take this community-based service into the future, Heartfelt Projects would like some heartfelt partners.
Donations are hugely important, as this small operation handles massive amounts of data, and utilizes precise equipment. A top of the line mobile screening machine, for example, runs in the vicinity of $80,000. “I’m not a fundraiser,” Holly says. “I was naïve and wanted to save lives and spare grief for others. Now I’m realizing I need help for growth.” To keep the non-profit screenings going forward, she has started a GoFundMe campaign with a modest fundraising goal of $25,000.
She jokes, “I’m holding myself hostage! Send $1,000 ransom!”
In all seriousness, Holly hopes to raise enough money to buy a new portable echo-cardiogram. The Stu News Laguna community is invited to donate in any amount: http://www.gofundme.com/HeartfeltCardiacProjects
Strong-willed as she is, Holly could use extra hands on deck. One day she envisions having actual paid help. “I have great volunteers,” she said. “But I really need to be able to pay people to help me. I can’t do it alone.”
Heartfelt Cardiac Projects will be screening more than 1,000 students in the next couple of months including many at Laguna Beach High School.
The Laguna Beach School District through the Athletic Boosters will be making Heartfelt screenings available during the next athletics’ physicals on June 3 and 4. The screenings are $85. The same tests normally cost as much as $1500 and are usually not covered by insurance.
Journey to the top of the world
“I believe my life was spared in order for me to continue my life’s work,” said Holly. “Often the gift of purpose is found through great adversity.”
Holly has time on her side now, but she also knows that every minute is precious.
Sudden cardiac death occurs every 90 seconds in the U.S. That is an ironic fact for Holly as she notes that is the exact time she was given to live when her heart failed two years ago.
The surgeon who performed the open-heart surgery that saved her life appreciated the full impact of those 90 seconds. The problem area of Holly’s heart resided under her left collarbone, a difficult area to find and repair. “He told me months after the surgery that it had been a touch and go situation,” she said. “He really didn’t know if I’d make it. My blood pressure was plummeting, and I was bleeding out. He had 90 seconds to fix my heart. That’s all that separated me from life and death.”
Holly only remembers waking up briefly after the surgery. “He kissed me on my forehead, and said, ‘I’m glad you made it’.”
These days Holly is good as gold. She checks in with the doctor every three months, and does home monitoring where the device in her heart actually sends a signal through a system to the doctor’s phone.
“Even though I tried to put on a brave face I truly had a hard time imagining any quality of life ever again. I was wrong!” she says. “I am beyond grateful. My life is both a miracle and a blessing and I wish to cherish every 90 seconds of it!”
She’s not sure the doctor would approve, but she’s feeling good enough to get back into tennis, and her former partners are thrilled. And her beautiful dog, Sophie, is happy to get back to long walks together.
Sophie loves a nice walk once again with her pal Holly
There is no reason to doubt this optimist and activist. Last year alone she saved eight people’s lives with early detection. Her Heartfelt project has detected thousands of young people with heart defects, and provides the service at an affordable price - a fraction of the cost it would be in hospital, and the outpouring of love and gratitude from the families of loved-ones she has helped to save is palpable.
May Heartfelt Cardiac Projects grow and flourish just as Holly Morrell’s heart does.
Anyone, of any age, can schedule a screening at the website: www.heartfeltcardiacprojects.org